By Dan Scifo
From the Point contributor
PITTSBURGH – The Pittsburgh Penguins, loaded with offense and Stanley Cup expectations, certainly felt the pressure of an 0-3 start to the season.
Evgeni Malkin decided to do something about it.
Malkin scored his first of the season, rookie Daniel Sprong netted the first of his career and Marc-Andre Fleury made it stand as the Pittsburgh Penguins avoided their worst start in 13 seasons with a 2-0 victory against the Ottawa Senators at Consol Energy Center on Thursday.
“When you start the season 0-3, it’s not fun, but of course it’s pressure,” Malkin said. “We understand how tough it is to win in this league.
“We did a great job tonight. Maybe now we can relax a little bit more and focus on playing the right way. We played all 60 minutes tonight.”
Malkin scored his first goal since March 6th – a span of 19 games – and gave the Penguins their first lead of the season as Pittsburgh was able to rebound from an ugly open to the season and the star center one of the worst scoring droughts of his career.
“I didn’t score in a long time, obviously last season and in the playoffs, so it’s a little bit of pressure on myself too,” Malkin said. “It’s easy when you score. You have more confidence.”
The 18-year-old Sprong, the team’s second-round pick, got a boost on Thursday with his first NHL goal. Sprong made the team out of training camp and became the fourth-youngest to score for the Penguins against Ottawa.
“I was pretty happy, but most importantly we got the win,” Sprong said. “We knew we had to step up our game. We played the right way and we got the win at home.”
Fleury, who has won his last seven home starts against Ottawa, stopped 22 shots for his 39th career shutout and first win of the season. Fleury, who lost his first three games in October for the first time since 2010, has never dropped four straight.
“It’s a good feeling,” Fleury said. “Those first games, it just seems like we were searching ourselves a little bit out there. I don’t think we had a full, consistent game and tonight it felt really good.”
Penguins’ captain Sidney Crosby still doesn’t have a point in his last five games dating back to the 2014-15 season. It’s the first time he’s gone the first four games of the season without a point and his longest drought since 2009.
That’s OK by the Penguins. Malkin did the heavy lifting on Thursday.
“(Crosby) had three outstanding chances,” Penguins’ coach Mike Johnston said. “I think a matter of time for good scorers like that. “It’s going to happen.”
The Penguins felt the same way about their game.
Pittsburgh was off to its worst start since the 2005-06 season and hadn’t opened with four consecutive regulation losses since 2001-02. The team was outscored 8-3 in three losses, despite a wealth of firepower, including Crosby, Malkin and three-time All-Star Phil Kessel, acquired in a blockbuster summer trade to try and bolster the offense.
Still, Pittsburgh trudged through a season-opening road trip with losses at Dallas and Arizona and followed it up Tuesday with a one-goal defeat against Montreal in the team’s home opener.
“Even though early in the season stuff is going around, guys feel it a little bit,” Johnston said. “They tend to squeeze their stick and I didn’t see that in our game. Tonight, if any night, you would’ve seen that.”
The Penguins got the start they wanted, controlling play in the Senators’ end and generating offensive opportunities as Ottawa nearly went the first eight minutes without a shot on goal. They outshot the Senators 16-6, but didn’t have any goals to show for it during a scoreless opening period.
“That’s what we want to see in the first period,” Johnston said. “We had the jump and the energy and we put the defense on its heels.”
The drought didn’t last long when Malkin scored on the first shot of the second period.
Malkin, streaking down the right wing, whipped a wrist shot that went under the arm of Senators’ goaltender Craig Anderson, giving the Penguins a 1-0 lead just 23 seconds into the period.
It was Sprong’s turn 2:02 later as the Penguins opened the second period with two goals in 2:25. Sprong took a pass from Matt Cullen and momentarily waited before firing a shot from the slot over the glove of a sliding Anderson.
“(Cullen) made a good pass and I was fortunate to get a great shot off,” Sprong said. “I saw Anderson sliding and I knew I had to put it high. It was a pretty special moment.”
It was special for the Penguins too after enduring a rough start to the season.
“We lost three games and it’s not fun,” Malkin said. “We understand that we can’t lose anymore. The whole team was focused on the first shift and we started playing better every shift.”
NOTES: Penguins’ F Beau Bennett sat out Thursday’s game with an undisclosed injury. Bennett, who has battled injury throughout his career, missing 33 games last season, would’ve played in his 100th career NHL game on Thursday. … Malkin has four goals in his last four games against the Senators and 11 in his previous 10 home games vs. Ottawa. … The Penguins won 11 of their last 15 against Ottawa and seven of the last nine at home. … Fleury is two games from 600 in his career. … Penguins D Rob Scuderi was a healthy scratch, ending a stretch of 131 straight games played. The Penguins also sat F Sergei Plotnikov.